Openly gay congressman didn't know status of federal hate crimes legislation

Posted on 06 Mar 2009 at 3:47pm

Perhaps if openly gay U.S. Congressman Jared Polis (pictured above) weren’t relying so much on “new media” for his information, he would’ve known there are no federal protections against anti-gay hate crimes.

Polis, the 33-year-old freshman Democrat from Colorado, put his foot in his mouth recently when he told a group of bloggers that the demise of The Rocky Mountain News and other traditional news outlets is “mostly for the better.”

Polis later apologized for the remark, which you can read about here, but he should be even more embarrassed about a gaffe he made last weekend in Austin while addressing the Texas Stonewall Democratic Caucus. After all, how could one of three openly gay members of Congress, who also happens to serve as co-chair of the LGBT congressional caucus, not be fully aware of the status of such a major piece of federal gay-rights legislation?

Polis made the gaffe in response to a question from an audience member who said he was concerned that LGBT activists in rural areas may be putting themselves at risk. The audience member, Randy Brown of Livingston, Texas, told Polis that some of his friends have already fallen victim to hate crimes.

Polis responded that if local authorities refused to investigate anti-gay hate crimes, Brown should contact federal authorities, implying that federal law includes protections against hate crimes based on sexual orientation.

Texas Stonewall President Dan Graney quickly interrupted and reminded Polis that there are no federal protections against anti-gay hate crimes. The Matthew Shepard Act, which would add sexual orientation and gender identity to federal hate crimes protections, passed both the House and Senate in 2007, but it was removed from a Defense Reauthorization bill after President Bush threatened to veto it.

Afterward, Polis told me he’d gotten confused because he knew the Shepard Act had passed Congress, and because protections against hate crimes based on sexual orientation are in place in his home state of Colorado.

Brown, meanwhile, told me he was surprised by Polis’ mistake, but glad he’d raised the issue.

“I don’t think he understands that Polk County’s not the only county in Texas or the United States where there are real, live human beings in danger,” Brown said.

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